Silicon Chips in the Pacific Northwest

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In the summer of 1979, the "microchip" revolution came to the Pacific Northwest, thanks to a cooperative effort between the UW and the region's high-tech companies. A research and educational consortium based in the UW computer science department helped these companies acquire integrated circuit technology and the tools and skilled personnel for designing the new microchips.

Semiconductor technology had been invented in the late 1950s; and by the late 1970s it had advanced to the point that integrated circuits were in wide use in computers. Chips containing from hundreds to a few thousand transistors had been fabricated.

At the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, professor Carver Mead led a demonstration project to place an entire computer on a single silicon chip. In the course of that work, Mead made two important predictions. First, the number of transistors per chip would rise explosively, heralding the era of Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI). Switches, wires, and memory would no longer be expensive, as they had been throughout the history of computing, but would become almost free. Secondly, the design and fabrication of chips could be separated. No longer did the chip designer have to be familiar with the semiconductor fabrication process in order to produce a working chip; anyone willing to follow a few rules could design one. Mead developed the methods to support this separation of labor and embarked on a mission to bring the techniques to the world.

In the late 1970s, Mead visited some of the major universities around the country, teaching faculty and students the new chip design techniques. When asked by Boeing to teach engineers there, Mead preferred instead to teach the teachers: he asked UW computer science professor Ted Kehl to put together a joint UW/Boeing summer school on VLSI design with Mead as instructor. That first VLSI class in the Pacific Northwest, held during the summer of 1979, included UW faculty and students, Boeing engineers, and the original members of the Seattle-based Engineering Group of computer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corporation.

During the four-week class, participants learned all aspects of chip design, from algorithm creation to layout, from concept to chip. Within weeks, faculty, students and engineers alike were showing off what for the time were state-of-the-art 6 micron nMOS chips--so tiny that a magnifying glass was needed to view their intricate features.

The success of the class was evidence to the organizers that cooperation could be a powerful tool for strengthening the region's high-technology base. Education and industry each would benefit. From that reasoning came a collaborative research arrangement between industry, the university, and the government, called the University of Washington Northwest VLSI Consortium, established by Kehl and computer science chair Robert Ritchie, and aimed at research and education in VLSI technology.

Five companies joined the effort as industrial sponsors: Boeing, John Fluke, Honeywell Marine Systems, Microtel Pacific Research, and Tektronix. In addition, funding was obtained from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the federal government. The consortium opened its doors in January of 1982.

The VLSI consortium helped to catalyze the development of new products and systems in Northwest industries and helped train a workforce skilled in these cutting-edge techniques. "For example, DEC's first microprocessor VAX computer, the MicroVAX-I, was designed by students from the original UW course in collaboration with Carver Mead," says Ed Lazowska, chair of the UW computer science and engineering department. "And the founding of IC Designs, a highly successful Seattle-area integrated circuit house, was based partially on UW technology."

Moreover, the consortium produced a package of computer-aided VLSI design tools that were released to companies, labs, and schools all across North America. The computer-aided tools made the design of chips much easier and faster that ever before. As the technology matured, the consortium's research activities were phased out in the late 1980s; its equipment and technologies today are incorporated into the computer science and engineering department's Laboratory for Integrated Systems.

  1. Assistance provided by UW computer science and engineering professors Lawrence Snyder and Ed Lazowska is gratefully acknowledged.

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